Bruce Edelstein, installation view of Islands, 2018. Ceramic with pigment and encaustic, 51 x 54 x 48 in. Photo: Courtesy Big Town Gallery

Bruce Edelstein

Rochester, Vermont

Big Town Gallery

A child of two West Coast artists, Bruce Edelstein grew up with a pencil in his hand, and his facility for imaginative form animates the clay sculptures shown in his recent exhibition “Oaxaca.” The Manhattan-based artist and teacher discovered ceramics at a market in that Mexican city in 2007. He became entranced with the medium and obtained a grant to return to work with Francisco Toledo, a well-known artist. Using Toledo’s walk-in, high-fire kiln, Edelstein created his first experimental pieces, which provided the basis for his current work. At the time, Oaxaca was in political tumult, and Edelstein sees parallels to the challenges facing American social values today.

Behemoth, the first sculpture one encountered, took possession of the gallery’s outdoor deck. Constructed of thick slabs of clay, the oversize “head” is supported by myriad “legs,” some decorative, some functional. The direct execution brings to mind early Mayan stone sculpture, while the raw energy of the heavily grogged clay gives the work a concentrated force, reinforced by a judiciously applied underglaze that covers the surface with subtly mottled black and white accents.

Islands 1, 2, and 3 (2018) reveal Edelstein at the peak of his skill. The three pieces all involve a stepped construction, with open spaces that remind one of pueblos. These articulated spaces represent the boundaries that we engineer for our comfort and survival. Islands 1 features an abstract, ribbon-like form set on an architectural base. Over four feet in height, it makes a powerful statement. Pollock-like drips of pigment and black and white encaustic enliven the earth tones of the clay, and the entire piece has a fanciful and playful quality. Islands 2, which has a more demure presence, resembles a robed Japanese figure bearing an offering. The flow of the clay is incredibly rhythmic, the artist’s hand ever-present in the bold strokes that shaped the form while the medium was still plastic. Islands 3 features strongly ribbed horizontal grooves that delineate the contours of an outer form surrounding interior architectural spaces. The pigment and color (consistent with Islands 1) greatly enhance the appeal.

Edelstein has access to one of the last surviving gas kilns in New York City (at Columbia University), where he is able to fire his extraordinary pieces. Although inspired by his time in Oaxaca, these sculptures were conceived and executed in New York. Edelstein says that “memory always pulls feelings from one place to another,” and that the flow of consciousness between the two places is second nature to him.

His working process involves a series of drawings, as he plays with concept and form, turning a piece around in his mind, considering its weight and balance. The watercolor and pencil drawings that compose Study for Babel are true “sculptor’s drawings,” nearly bursting from the page into three dimensions. Gorky taught that fluidity comes over time, and Edelstein follows this philosophy. The evolutionary development through drawing and painting into sculpture enriches his finished works with complex layers of association, texture, and form. The clay is animated by an enormous sense of freedom and experimentation. Edelstein credits this quality to his process of continually journeying between drawing and sculpture, and his humble attitude toward entering an open-ended dialogue with the clay. His sense of sureness in the handling—at once intimate and bold—has produced works of true originality.